December Jobs Report Has Analysts Flummoxed

The U.S. economy gained just 74,000 jobs in December, according to a disappointing report released by the Labor Department on Friday. Economists had been expecting nearly three times as many jobs. At the same time, the unemployment rate fell slightly, to 6.7 percent. It's not that more jobs were created, though — many of the long-term unemployed just stopped looking.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Yesterday's jobs report came as something of a surprise after several months of positive economic news. Employers added just 74,000 jobs. Economists had been expecting businesses to generate nearly three times that many. A few people were heartened by the fact that the unemployment rate fell to 6.7 percent, the lowest since October of 2008. As NPR's Chris Arnold reports, the numbers reflect that many of the long-term unemployed have simply given up looking for work.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: First, we should say that this latest jobs report could be kind of a fluke. There were private-sector reports that found just the opposite - much stronger job growth. So Friday morning, analysts were flummoxed. Randall Kroszner is a University of Chicago economist and a former governor of the Federal Reserve Board.

RANDALL KROSZNER: This is an odd report, and a very disappointing number for December. There's a lot of volatility in these numbers, very large revisions that occur over the next month or two. And so we really have to wait and see.

ARNOLD: We reached Kroszner after his flight got delayed at the Chicago airport. That's been happening to lots of folks lately. And Kroszner says bad weather doesn't just foul up travel. It can foul up employment data, too. For example, construction workers get told to stay home because it's too cold to work with certain materials.

KROSZNER: We've had unusually snowy and cold weather in December, and so that certainly contributed to some of the oddities in the numbers.

ARNOLD: But this, we do know: About 4 million Americans are looking for work, and have been looking for more than six months. This situation with long-term unemployment has been getting a little better, but it's still basically the worst that it's been since the 1940s. And that means that a lot of regular Americans, often through no fault of their own, have fallen into a seemingly never-ending twilight zone where they just can't find a job.

MICHAEL KOCHER: Altogether, I ended up spending, I guess, 16 or 17 months unemployed.

ARNOLD: That's Michael Kocher. He's 29 years old and when he got out of the Marine Corps a year and a half ago after serving in Iraq, he didn't expect it to be this hard to find work. He first moved back to his home state of Alaska.

KOCHER: I got out thinking, like, oh, I'm a veteran, you know, it's going to be easy. I'm going to find a job.

ARNOLD: And Kocher has a college degree, six years' experience in the military, a job before that. But things just didn't work out so well.

KOCHER: I mean, it got bad because like, my unemployment ran out. I had no money coming in, and there was a period of time where I actually was living in my - I was living in my truck, my Chevy Tahoe.

ARNOLD: Actually, it was Kocher and his dog.

KOCHER: And I'm a pretty big guy. You know, I'm 6-foot-8 and about 270 pounds. And it was me and my 80-pound chocolate lab, living in my Tahoe. (Laughter)

ARNOLD: After a while, Kocher moved to California to look for work but no luck there, either. He had worked in radio communications in the military, so he applied to cellphone and electronics companies and anything related to that that he could think of. But with so many job seekers, employers can be choosy, and they told him that he just didn't have the right experience. So Kocher lowered his sights.

KOCHER: Oh, yeah. I mean, I tried to apply to sell, like, electronics at Targe; I tried applying at both UPS and FedEx; random, you know, restaurants to do, like, pizza delivery.

ARNOLD: But, Kocher says, nobody would hire him. Labor experts say ironically, it can actually get harder to find even entry-level jobs like this the longer you're not working because employers start to think, well, maybe there's something wrong with this person. In Kocher's case, though, just a few weeks ago, he finally landed a job. Working from home in San Jose, he's now doing product testing for a company that's making a privacy software. It's called Virtru. Kocher says he's doing the job well and getting money in his pocket again, and that means a brighter future for him and his long-term girlfriend. They've been living at her parents' house for a while now.

KOCHER: Just now, you know, I can think positively about the future again. I can think about things like getting married and having kids again. And it's just like everything in my life is better now that I'm employed with a real job, with a company I can see going places.

ARNOLD: Every month that goes by, more Americans are finding jobs. But there are still three times as many unemployed people as job openings.

Chris Arnold, NPR News.

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